Posted: Saturday, November 4, 2017 – 6:00 PM
Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, co-artistic directors of Pasadena’s classical theater company A Noise Within (ANW), didn’t know they had a U.S. premiere on their hands.
A Google search let the couple know they were the first in the U.S. to produce Mike Poulton’s fast-paced stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. “That is the joy of the internet,” says Rodriquez-Elliott.
Their production of Tony-winner Poulton’s distillation of the Dickens’ classic is running through Nov. 19 in repertory with Giraudoux’s The Madwoman of Challiot and Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession.
“I think we were the first to ask,“says Rodriguez-Elliott. “We came across the adaptation (first produced in London in 2014), found it intriguing and requested a copy of the script from the agent. We looked at it, fell in love and asked for the rights. “Poulton has given the theatre a bold adaptation that breathes new life into the classic novel, a taut political thriller that feels so immediate, so exciting, so theatrical, and so wonderfully alive for audiences. It’s a roller coaster of romance and adventure, without losing the rich characterizations and Dickens’ eloquent language.”
Dickens story is a perfect fit for the season’s theme of “Entertaining Courage,” says Elliott, “in terms of paying it forward, standing up and being courageous.” The choices that Carlton makes have a great deal to teach us all about doing something for people around you.”
A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens’ 1859 novel, is set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. The novel depicts the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by the aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution, the corresponding brutality demonstrated by the revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats in the early years of the revolution, and many unflattering social parallels with life in London during the same period.
In mounting the show, the husband and wife couple had to meet the challenges of bringing an epic story that switches between England and France, and the logistics of mob scenes, to the stage. “It requires a lot of work on the front end of how you design the show to tell it in an evocative way,” says Elliott, “understanding you have a lot of ground to cover.”
The pair worked with scenic designer Fred Kinney to create “distinguishing looks and feels for two England and France that were going through different things,” says Elliott. Designer Ken Booth has lit England with hints of green, while simmering France is bright with red.
Clever projections by Kristin Campbell help advance the plot as in the pivotal carriage crash that kills young by and inflames the mob.
The original production had a score by Rachel Portman. The ANW production, with selections like songs about “liberté, egalité, fraternité” for the mob, features music by resident artist Robert Orial that often frames the scenes.
The cast of 23 includes Kasey Mahaffey as Attorney General/Defarge/Gabelle, Frederick Stuart as Sydney Carton, Nicholas Hormann as Dr. Manette, Elliott as Judge/Marquis/Jerry Cruncher, Emily Goss as Lucie Manette, Trisha Miller as Miss Pross/Jenny Herring, Abby Craden as Madame Defarge/Mrs. Keating and Tavis Doucette as Charles Darnay.
Poulton wrote the play to have actors playing multiple roles. “It’s part of the conceit,” says Rodriguez-Eliott, “and it’s always fun. It’s incredibly theatric and satisfying for the artists.”
The play launches with cast members singing probably the most well-known book opening ever—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair”—and uses a narrator to set the scene starting in an English courthouse.
The directing couple are fans of Poulton’s construction, they say that allows for moments of introspection for the dissolute Sidney Carlton and love scenes for earnest Charles Darnay and Lucy Manette set against the locomotion of the revolution, and its representatives the vengeful Madame Defarge and her husband, that is the underbelly of the story.
“We’ve been pleased with the response,” says Rodriguez-Elliott. “People familiar with the novel get the essence of the story and don’t feel cheated; and others don’t realize it’s such a political thriller. A lot of people have said it inspires them to re-read the novel.”
Elliott adds that a lot of audience members are keying into the story’s depiction of the economic disparity between classes and that theme’s relevance in America today.
The message Elliott hopes audiences take away is that “we all have the ability to transform and care about the people around us in an uncompromising way.”
The play’s finale has a fiery projection of the guillotine to the left and a looming staircase that moves effectively to convey Carlton’s ultimate redemption. Actor Frederick Stuart has the task of bringing to life Carton’s world-famous declaration, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
Says Elliott, “the actor has to make sure these lines are a discovery and play it that way. For the first time in his life Sydney feels what it’s like to give to someone else; and is so freeing for him.”
Remaining performances are today at 8 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 10 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Nov. 19 at 2 and 7 p.m.
The run of A Tale of Two Cities includes a post-performance conversation with the artists at 8 p.m., Friday, Nov. 10.
Tickets. starting at $25, are available online at http://www.anoisewithin.org and by phone by calling 626-356-3100.
A Noise Within is located on the corner of Foothill Boulevard and Sierra Madre Villa Avenue at 3352 East Foothill Blvd., Pasadena.